30 June 2023 Blogs, Academic, Government, Faculty, Librarian

Why declassified documents are a gateway to historical insights

Opening once-secret U.S. documents to scrutiny by researchers can change our understanding of history and history-makers

In the realm of recent headlines, the scrutiny surrounding the handling of classified documents involving public figures has brought to the forefront the importance of their proper treatment in safeguarding national security. This renewed focus has sparked a wave of intrigue and fascination surrounding classified government documents.

Conversely, when historical classified documents undergo the process of declassification, they enrich knowledge by allowing exploration of content that was previously obscured.

Since 1985, the National Security Archive at George Washington University has led the way in archiving declassified documents. Founded by journalists and scholars in response to rising government secrecy in the U.S., the National Security Archive is also a leading user of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to publish and expand access to governmental secrets.

To make its content easily accessible to researchers and students, the National Security Archive partners with ProQuest, part of Clarivate, on digital collections of the archive. The Digital National Security Archive now has 61 modules providing vital primary source material to advance research in U.S. history, politics, and international relations.

Among the remarkable collections that exemplify the power of declassified documents is the Digital National Security Archive’s latest module: Targeting Iraq, Part II: War and Occupation, 2004-2011, a compilation of 2,179 documents encompassing 77,706 pages.

Exploring a crucial period in Iraq's history

The documents in Targeting Iraq, Part II chronicle the controversial involvement of the U.S. government and military in the region. The collection begins with the closure of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was established by the U.S. following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and ends with the withdrawal of all American combat troops in 2011 under U.S. President George W. Bush. The documents spotlight a range of key issues across the intervening years, including efforts to restore a functioning economy and re-establish security in Iraq, American attempts to suppress violence motivated by U.S. presence in the country, U.S. influence in Iraq’s political and economic decision-making and oil legislation.

An invaluable resource for researchers

For academic librarians catering to a diverse array of scholars and students across disciplines such as international relations, political science, history and Middle Eastern studies, the "Targeting Iraq" collection offers new insights. The collection enables researchers to examine the intricacies of Iraq's political and economic decision-making. Moreover, the documents delve into the critical issues of human rights, prisoner abuse, corruption, and contractor malfeasance, including the infamous misconduct of Blackwater. Specific events, such as the execution of Saddam Hussein, the ramifications of U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib, and civilian casualties, are documented, providing an unfiltered lens into the realities on the ground.

"Targeting Iraq, Part II" supplements the earlier collection, Targeting Iraq, Part I: Planning, Invasion, and Occupation, 1997-2004, and complements the information found in the Digital National Security Archive's collections on Donald Rumsfeld's Snowflakes, Part I and Part II.

A mission to preserve history

The efforts of the National Security Archive in curating any of its important and comprehensive document collections require tackling the persistent challenge of overclassification in foreign, military, and intelligence policy documents by the U.S. government. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests must be submitted and marshalled through bureaucratic mazes, including the complexities of declassifying electronic records. Records containing White House documents or those considered presidential records face additional hurdles and delays due to their exemption from the FOIA until five years after the end of an administration. Despite these obstacles, the National Security Archive continues to consistently open essential information, bringing immeasurable value to researchers and historians alike.

Encouraging meaningful discussions

The National Security Archive's publication of "Targeting Iraq, Part II" not only provides valuable insights into historical events but also contributes to ongoing discussions around U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and the repercussions of the Iraq War. These docments foster critical thinking, encourage informed analysis and broaden perspectives, ultimately empowering individuals to engage in meaningful dialogue and make well-informed decisions.

For more information on the Digital National Security Archive, visit:

Christie Freyre

Christie Freyre

Product Marketing Manager for Newspapers, Government Documents, Primary Source Buying Models and TDM Studio.

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